It’s been about 6 years since I joined the Mennonite (MCCan) church. Growing up in a Baptist (CBOQ) church in Toronto was a great experience for me. I was taught the importance of a personal relationship with God defined by study and prayer. Church attendance was essential, but in a good way. I also learned the importance of biblical rigour and generosity.
When I came to the Mennonite church, I learned that their story emphasized different aspects of faith than the Baptists. The Mennonite tradition answered questions I had had for a long time. They did things differently than what I had known by sharing power through community discernment. They focused heavily on peace and justice, and although they love the Bible and use it as a guide for their lives, they seemed to be okay with some ambiguity. I had found a people that I could really connect with and learn from. I felt at home.
And then I met a Hutterite.
It was last year, as I participated in a biking fundraiser, that I biked beside a man (I’ll call him John) from the Crystal Spring Hutterite colony (Hutterite Brethren) in Manitoba. There was a big group at the fundraiser from Crystal Spring, and I was so excited to have the chance to talk to one of them.
Until that point, I only ever studied the history of Hutterites, who share similarities with Mennonites. They each, as well as the Amish, come out of the radical reformation of the 16th century and are part of the Anabaptist family. They have similar beginnings and share an emphasis on adult baptism, peace, allegiance to Jesus, and community living. But if you were to walk into our church and then the Crystal Spring community, it would be like night and day.
Hutterites have held to the importance of faithful Christian living as community, having all things in common. They do church together, they live together in a colony, they work together (with very successful businesses), they do school together, and they still practice shared ownership of their materials. They dress in their own unique way and still speak German, although it’s a dialect of German I can barely understand.
So when I met John, I couldn’t help but ask all about their colony, and he was gracious enough to answer all my questions. I was so curious about what compels them to live like they do. Why be so separate from the rest of society? Why have all possessions in common? Why are their businesses for the profit of the community and not for individuals? Why dress the way they do?
When I came to the Mennonite church, I found an emphasis on community living and discernment that was new and life-giving for me. I thought I had found the right church. But the Hutterite colony has taken that notion of community and gone one step further, a step that seems biblical but one that not many of us would be willing to take. In Acts 3:42-47, we read about the early church:
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
There is something powerful that appeals to me about the way in which a community like Christal Spring lives. I know it’s far from perfect, but they are trying to practice what they believe is God honouring. Everyone is taken care of. No one has all the power or possessions. We may see it as taking the Bible too literal, but they are taking the teachings of Jesus about non-violence and money, and the example of the early church, seriously. This has led me to a big question:
Who’s right? Until I met John, I had always just assumed that the church I was in was probably the best, or the most correct. But after talking with John, I wondered if the most faithful thing for me to do as a Christian would be to join or start a colony like our Hutterite brothers and sisters.
This question came up again with one of my brothers who asked how we could possibly know which tradition is right. Every single church does things the way they do because they believe it is the right way. So how do we know which one is more faithful to God? And does it really matter? Why are we so different and in many cases, divisive? Do we just say that each tradition is good for some people? Is that just being post-modern and relative?
I didn’t know the answers to these questions when my brother asked them, and I don’t know them now. But what I learned from talking with John is that no tradition, not even my own, has all the right answers or does life in the right way. From my perspective, we are all incomplete and we have a lot to learn from each other. Although I don't think I could ever convince my family to join a colony, I can learn a great deal about community from Hutterites. I admire and respect them, but I don't think they have it all together. But neither do Baptists or Mennonites.
I think we need to remember that our traditions are human experiences and that our institutions are human-made. The Body of Christ is not defined by our understandings, but by Christ alone. Perhaps we need to offer ourselves and others some grace as we try to break down barriers that divide us. Christian traditions have more in common and more to teach each other than we may think. Palmer Becker used the analogy of a potluck. We all have something to bring to the table. It might not all taste good, but we may find something that someone else brings to be really new and refreshing. But let's remember, we can’t try the dishes if all our gatherings end in food fights.